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A World of Strange Relations: Christian Wiman’s Survival Is a Style

Christian Wiman’s new collection of poetry creates a world in which the human being is never one thing or the other—believer or unbeliever—but both at once. As the speaker in the book’s first poem, “Prologue,” puts it, “I need a space for unbelief to breathe.” Survival Is a Style creates that space.

“Once after a lecture,” writes Christian Wiman in his new book of poems, Survival Is a Style, “a woman stood up and read a passage out of some prose I had written and said, ‘How do you feel about being a heretic?’” This question is, as they say, more a comment than a question. What it declares is opposition: the believer on one team, the unbeliever on the other. The speaker in this prose poem, “A Heresy,” responds, in ésprit d’escalier, with a litany of what he wishes he had said, beginning, “there are no heretics, or there are only heretics.”

Wiman, whose 2007 essay “Gazing Into the Abyss” chronicles his unexpected reawakening to Christian faith, has spoken of wanting to “say something helpful” to “unbelieving believers . . . people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them.” In “Gazing into the Abyss,” he describes his own experience of this contradictory hunger:

If you never feel quite at home in your life, if being conscious means primarily being conscious of your own separation from the world and from divinity . . . then any idea or image that can translate that depletion into energy, those absences into presences, is going to be powerful.

For Wiman, poetry is the medium for such a translation. The voice that speaks in his poems is the voice, as he puts it, of the “unbelieving believer,” who is not separated from those to whom he wishes to “say something helpful,” but is one of them, speaking their language, because—though he believes—it is his native tongue.

As a whole, Survival Is a Style concerns itself with a reality in which, to paraphrase the speaker in “A Heresy,” there are no oppositions, or there are only oppositions: belief and unbelief, good and evil, presence and absence, form and substance, body and soul. What matters to these poems is not the lens through which we might choose to see things, limitedly and subjectively, but the things themselves in their contradictory wholeness.

The world of this collection is a world in which a suicide bomber’s humanity, in “And Someone Wrote It Down,” is recorded in two ways following the detonation: in bloodstains and in his brother’s remarking on his love for dates. “Someone remembered the human, and someone wrote it down.” This is a world in which “like” becomes conflated with “lack, as in/ ‘How much do you like bein’ done with your chemo?” In this world, a title like “Doing Lines at the Cocktail Party” riffs on the layered meanings of a word like “lines.” It suggests the sort of “lines” people might “do” at a party, involving a controlled substance and a mirror, but is really interested in the incantatory power of the word’s other senses: lines tossed off in small talk, lines as an actor’s rehearsed utterances, the line as the basic unit of poetry. It is a world, finally, in which the human being is never absolutely one thing or the other, believer or unbeliever, but absolutely both at once. As the speaker in the book’s first poem, “Prologue,” puts it, “I need a space for unbelief to breathe.” Poem after poem, Survival Is a Style creates that space.

Poetic Form and Religious Faith

The book’s title signals its interest in surface, image, and form: style, in its many senses, and the ways that breathing space can open up between form and the substance it gives shape to, without compromising the whole that those elements comprise. Poetic language, the medium through which the poet translates that holistic reality, presents an obvious sense of style to explore and interrogate.

The poems in this collection move in and out of conventional patterns of rhyme and meter, with the pentameter rhyming couplet receiving particular attention as a sort of grounding formal element. Wiman’s prosody rejects nothing, neither form nor the loosening of form; on this level, too, he is an “unbelieving believer.” As the speaker in “A Heresy”—comically, the collection’s one prose poem—asserts, “humans move toward God in language, and to speak language is to profane him.” Language, especially poetic language, is the conduit through which the human apprehends the divine, yet it falls short. Humans cannot pronounce God’s name.

“The failure of religious feeling is a form”: this assertion opens the book. Failure, feeling, form, words knit together alliteratively, constitute an entire spiritual and artistic trajectory in a single line. Spiritual aridity—at least, an aridity of those emotions conventionally assumed to corroborate faith—becomes, even as the speaker shapes, or forms, the words, a space for something to grow: the poem itself, and beyond it, the book as a whole. The words, as they form the formal space of the poem, become “a space in which grievers gather, / inviolate ice that the believers weather.” Again, sound knits oppositions together, as in the internal rhyme of “grievers” with “believers,” who seem to occupy each other’s places in the sense of that couplet. Conventionally, of course, it is “believers” who “gather,” “grievers” who “weather” hardship. In rhyme those apparent contradictions cohere, even as Christ, in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “holds all creation together in himself.” Here again, “there are no heretics, or there are only heretics.”

Later in the book, a long poem, “A Parable of Perfect Silence,” takes up the notion of “the failure of religious feeling” as a failure of religious language, specifically.

People ask if I believe in God and the verb is tedious to me.
Not wrong, not offensive, not intrusive, not embarrassing.
Tedious.

An extended image follows this revelation: a hawk perches on a chimney, and a pigeon, “a lump of animate ash,” ascends from the flue to settle beside it, “suddening a world of strange relations.” The “tedious” word fails, as Wiman says in “Gazing Into the Abyss,” to “translate . . . depletion into energy, absence into presence.” Instead, it is the image, for which there is no verb, only an adjective, sudden, pressed into unconventional action, which suggests the reality, the “world of strange relations.” In the face of human experience as “A Parable of Perfect Silence” depicts it—full of terrors, degradations, exaltations, and instances of hilarity, frequently bound up in the same invoked moment—words like belief and unbelief do grow tedious.

There is what is, the poem suggests; what we believe about it has no bearing on its is-ness. The pressure Wiman brings to bear on such language witnesses to the self-sufficient I-AM-ness of God, in whom, again, all reality holds together.

Responding to Spiritual Hunger

Paradoxically, as Wiman has said, to be “conscious” is to be “conscious of separation.” To be conscious of an absolute, self-sufficient presence is, at the same time, to be conscious at least of the possibility of its absence.

Even at its jokiest, Survival Is a Style probes this notion of experiencing God, the divine presence, as absence. “Raccoon Problem,” for example, constructs itself as an extended simile:

Like an exasperation of starlings.
Like a mountain climber who on his way up
passes the bones of those who died trying

But the speaker never reveals what is like the items in its litany of comparison. The title, so often the key to a poem’s unknowns, turns out to be either no help at all, or the riddle’s answer, or possibly both at once. A “raccoon problem” is precisely the thing the “laconic grandpa” at the end does not have. “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs,” meanwhile, builds like a Jenga tower of satirical details:

This one converts to Catholicism, that one to trees.
In a highly literary and hitherto religiously indifferent Jew,
God whomps on like a genetic generator.
Paleo. Keto. Zone. South Beach. Bourbon.

By the time the man who has married a younger woman “twice in one brunch uses the word verdant,” the speaker has established that while brunch is an intrinsically funny word, verdant is hilarious. Through its first fifteen lines, the poem reads like the set-up to an eventual punchline at the expense of all these “friends” and their “new beliefs.” The speaker observes them from a bemused distance, these silly, delusional friends. Or so it seems. At line sixteen, he repeats, “All my friends are finding new beliefs,” and from there proceeds to fly the poem straight into the ground. The Jenga tower collapses; the speaker’s syntax disintegrates with his irony:

and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness,
and my nights and my doubts,
and my friends, my beautiful, credible friends.

His thoughts complete themselves in incompletion, and the friends, whom he has been mocking as credulous, become in their capacity for belief and new beginnings, not only “beautiful,” but “credible.”

These “beautiful, credible friends” are exactly the sort of “unbelieving believers” whom Wiman imagines as listeners. These are the people “whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them.” His poems respond to their hunger as something implicitly recognized, because it is his as well.

Hope Amidst Suffering and Death

What is the difference, ultimately, between an “unbelieving believer” and a “believing unbeliever?” Both share the same drive, acknowledged or not, to discern some transcendent pattern in the contradictions of the world. One is convinced that the pattern exists. But how can he translate it so that the other can read it, too?

The poem “One Love” offers at least the suggestion of a way, as it examines the certainties of the physical world, bounded as it is by suffering and death. The poem asks, where is hope in such a world?

The poem’s first section seizes on the language of platitude, in its ironic, repeated insistence that “Sundays are the best.” The Sundays in question are, here, Sundays on the cancer ward. Here, reality is rooted in bodily suffering. “Good” means simply some brief respite from the worst of it: the sound of weeping, the doctors’ interpretations of “meaningless tests,” the code-red reaction to a “cure.” This is a Sabbath of lack. “There is no cure.” This section, despite its preoccupation with absences, is bracketed nevertheless by the speaker’s awareness of his own body, present and incarnate, tethered by plastic tubing to the hope of its own continuation, however futile that hope might be.

In the poem’s brief second section, the scope moves outward, to view the larger physical landscape in light of the realities of illness and death. A mountain “tak[es] in” nightfall “like a diagnosis of darkness.” This section ends on a note of limping self-consolation, the idea of “a continuation / that has nothing to do / with you.”

The poem’s third section, however, moves beyond these physical horizons of body and topography. It suggests a life that is larger and more luminous than its physical evidence, though that is not un-beautiful. This final section begins with “[t]hree kinds of hair in the brush” left on the kitchen counter, but quickly abandons this slender spoor in a move like an out-of-body experience. As they leave the house, drive to the mountains, and come home again, the family whose hair mingles in the brush becomes “one love . . . four kinds of cries . . . five kinds of silence . . . three kinds of sleep . . . four kinds of dreams . . . one wonder / [which] wakes up another, and another, and another.” The people wake in the car, one by one, but wonder itself also awakens more wonder. There is no real division between the physical waking and the larger spiritual apprehension of wonder. In this moment, as in every moment of the journey from the house, they both inhabit and transcend their bodies. The physical world perdures all the same, with its physical features of valley and city.

The speaker records these physical facts, but the poem points to another truth as well: a life not absolutely boundaried by the body, ephemeral as breath, perhaps, but resonant with awareness and awe. The body is, but even grounded in this physical life with its inevitable end, the human being is more. “The more I think, the more I feel / reality without reverence is not real,” says the speaker of the book’s final poem, “Epilogue.”

Ours is a reality of oppositions: belief and unbelief, life and death. Yet, in this book, this contradictory wholeness holds together—all true things of a piece with each other—and the poems bow before it.

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